By Roger Boylan
The past two weeks would have been a good time for me to go on a bank-robbing spree. Last week I was test driving a gray Toyota Prius, and this week my tester has been a gray Corolla. Either one would make an ideal invisible getaway car: “’Getaway car?’ said eyewitnesses. ‘What getaway car?’” Actually, come to think of it, a Prius seems such an unlikely set of wheels for a desperado that even a gray one might catch someone’s eye. But the Corolla would just melt into the landscape.
And that, I concluded after a week at the wheel of a 2011 Corolla LE, is pretty much its mission. It’s everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous yet invisible. It’s a no-frills, no-worries, no-bling car. You buy one for anything between $15K and $21K, depending on trim level (base, LE, or S); you drive it for 100,000+ miles; you trade it in; lather, rinse, repeat. Because there’ll always be another shiny new Corolla down at the dealership. The nameplate’s been around since 1968. It’s the single best-selling automobile in history: over 35,000,000 sold. This averages out to one being sold somewhere in the world every 40 seconds.
It has an unremarkable but sturdy 1.8-liter engine good for 132 horses and 128 lb.-ft. of torque. It has a reputation for drop-dead reliability, recent recalls notwithstanding (the Corolla was recently exonerated.) It sips gas as a duchess sips tea: After a week of constant driving, I still had enough regular juice left in the tank for a range of 60 miles. EPA figures for those equipped with the 4-speed automatic, as mine was, are 26 city, 34 highway. The car info center claimed an average of 32.8 mpg, a figure I have no reason to dispute. This is excellent fuel economy for a non-hybrid.
Actually, if you look hard, the Corolla emerges from anonymity. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it looks good enough to be mistaken for a little Lexus. Its lines, freshened this year, are crisp and trim. It’s a subtle, clean design, with a bit of Mazda 6 here (the tail), a hint of Suzuki Kizashi there (the leering headlights), but overall, it’s recognizably a member of the Toyota/Lexus clan: the common ancestry with the IS250/350 twins, for example, is obvious. All in all, it’s an attractive car. Indeed, the full-boat Corolla S, in (say) jet black, with spoiler, tinted windows, and chrome alloy wheels, is a real eye-catcher, and even my humbler LE looked good, equipped as it was with the 5-spoke alloys, moon roof, and foglamps included in the optional Premium Package ($2,150, which also gets you a power moonroof, an upgraded 6-speaker audio system plus USB/ iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth). Despite all that, it turned no heads, except that of a driver of another identical gray Corolla LE, beholding his doppelgänger. So let’s be objective and imagine it’s a Lexus: Now isn’t it a nice-looking car?
Outside, the Corolla’s good looks may evoke its more expensive cousins, but inside you’re reminded of the true price point. Only cloth seats are available, and there’s plastic everywhere, filling the air with that good old rental-car aroma. The dashboard is solid hard-touch plastic, gray and black. But everything’s very well put together; not a panel is misaligned, or a cubby cover loose, and everything’s in its right place and intuitive to use. Knobs and buttons are well placed, clearly marked, and large enough to not distract from the road. I also found the info display–instant and average fuel economy, fuel range, external temperature, etc.–useful and simple to read. This is one of the Corolla’s attributes–it makes you feel at home in short order. In less than an hour I’d recovered from my initial discomfiture at being in an economy car (I know, what an old snob). After that I was quite happy behind the plump steering wheel, with its redundant audio and hands-free phoning controls; well accommodated, in fact, on the plush cloth seats, with room to spare in all directions for my extremities, always a reassuring discovery. It makes the difference between agony and comfort on long drives, as does good cold air conditioning, and the Corolla’s is top-notch. (It had better be, in Texas. Inadequate a/c is a deal-breaker in these parts.)
Leg room in the rear is sufficient for a trio of kids or a pair of average-sized adults. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 configuration, extending the 12.3 cu. ft. of cargo space in the trunk, which easily swallowed all my week’s-worth of groceries. Cubbies are amply provided, and there’s a split-level glove compartment, a feature I’ve noticed approvingly in other Toyotas. Visibility is good all around, an important safety consideration. Other safety issues are addressed with the standard array of protective devices: dual frontal, front side-impact, and side curtain airbags, ABS, stability and traction control, tire pressure monitor, etc. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has given the 2011 Corolla an overall rating of “Good,” their highest accolade.
On the road, the Corolla impresses with its smooth ride and silent interior. In this, again, it’s reminiscent of its grander Lexus cousins. I heard nary a buzz from the all-plastic dashboard at any stage in a long drive. We went down some pretty rough Hill Country byways between Driftwood and San Marcos, a winding itinerary of some 75 miles all told, through Wild-West landscapes of mesas, juniper groves, and limestone ridges, requiring concentration on the part of the driver and agility and good brakes on the part of the vehicle. I concentrated; the Corolla paid me back by proving adept through the curves, with well-balanced steering that feels perhaps a bit too heavy at slower speeds, and brakes that do their thing firmly and well. Acceleration is good, not electrifying; I timed 0-60 in just about 10 sec, with the engine seeming eager enough but losing its oats in second and not recovering them until fourth, when cruising speed takes over and all is serene. My advice for Toyota, for what it’s worth, is: Lose this tranny. It’s an antiquated 4-speed that hampers performance. This car needs a 6-speed box, such as the new Ford Focus has. Or maybe a sophisticated CVT, as in the Nissan Sentra, or its own cousin the Prius. Because there’s nothing wrong with the venerable 1.8-liter engine, which, although not exactly a perpetrator of greased-lightning velocity, is more than equal to the task of moving the little car along briskly. It’s just that it would do a better job with a transmission that could keep the mojo right in the heart of the power band.
Apart from that, thumbs up. The Corolla’s a very good car, tested over the years, and built to resist trends. It’s sufficiently above average in all fundamental respects to not need to excel in any single one. The sales figures confirm the success of this formula: you know what you’re getting when you get a Corolla. Because basically it’s made for people who don’t really care what takes them from A to B, as long as it doesn’t break down just outside B on a rainy night. And you know what? I’ve spent time just outside B on a rainy night, so I’m like that, too.